“Dwell in possibility.” –Emily Dickinson

I am in one of those cycles again, where the challenges feel bigger than life, where I can’t discern the small passing inconveniences from the larger looming threats. They all run together in a continuous low-grade anxiety that I can’t quite shake. I don’t even dare look at the news feed on my phone. 

It becomes hard to trust your own thinking when nothing seems to be working. The space between how I thought it would go and how it is going seems to widen in front of my eyes. Maybe most difficult of all is how often the undesirable outcomes around us spill over into our relationships, both at home and at work.

An errant comment too easily turns into an argument. I become blind to my impact on people around me, caught up in the unresolved problems surrounding me. During times like these, we often underestimate the power of the choices we make and how it can create a path back towards what’s working or down the slippery slope of self-destruction, which my husband affectionately calls “flirting with the gutter.”

Here is my short list to making it better when it isn’t working at all. Each one helps you do the next one, so start at the beginning and work your way down.

Step 1: Be a Rock-Star Problem Solver

The more I have come to approach life as a problem-solving activity, the more I am prepared to deal with all of the millions of ways that reality has a life of its own, regardless of what I wanted or expected. Problem-solving as a way of being – instead of a reactive, fix-it operation – normalizes how we respond when things go awry. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that everything that occurs is a problem, but rather that most of our aspirations generate new or sometimes the same kinds of problems over and over. The most familiar obstacles of not having enough resources, energy, or time play out in myriad ways and fuel our fight-or-flight response, exhausting us even more. The collateral damage to our closest allies is the best reason to become a dedicated problem solver. 

Step 2: Abandon the Storyline

When things fall apart, it is easy to get lost in the rollercoaster of the storyline. The sad truth about our repetitive storyline when things are not working is that it bizarrely resembles the last 200 times things weren’t working. When faced with too many unresolved issues at once, our negative mind tapes get loud. This is when the negative self-talk feels eerily resonant – mostly it is just too dang familiar. 

Giving up our storyline requires the courage to stew in the discomfort of the present breakdown without a story, replacing the banter with persistent attention to how we are thinking and talking to ourselves. 

Step 3: Start from the Inside Out

It has taken me a ridiculously long time to realize that the emotional issues which I carry in myself or ignore with those around me multiply into layers of complications the longer they go untended. Having the courage to listen to your emotions, name them and give them voice creates mountain-sized changes on outside circumstances. Also, I have cleared up many a physical ailment just by giving into feeling what I have been avoiding.

I may be giving away all my credibility by sharing the story of the little four-year-old girl inside of me who can create massive havoc in every aspect of my life when I refuse to acknowledge and nurture her needs. Sometimes she is seven, sometimes she’s 13, but she is there and the problems I am having now trigger her old stuff in surprising yet consistent ways. One of the most effective ways I have discovered for fixing the problems around me starts with paying attention to the ones inside first. Moreover, this kind of self-love, or lack of it, is what resounds in our relationships to everyone else we spend time with. We can’t give what we don’t have.

Step 4: No Quitting, No Giving Up

Persistence is a real thing and defines outcomes more often than not. When things are not working, staying with the unresolved in and around us sets us on a path toward resolution or failure. Quitting is way too easy. Distraction is the leader these days and makes it hard to stay focused even on a good day. Too often, the most significant consequences of quitting are not visible at the moment we walk away. In addition, like persistence, the practice of giving up becomes insidious like most bad habits. Every worthy achievement is in large part a result of people who didn’t quit when things came apart – and trust me, they did come apart. Persistence is the single biggest secret that separates successful people from the rest. They know if they stay long enough, it will start to work again.